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2020 Season Preview: Busan IPark


Following a thrilling playoff triumph at the close of last season, Busan IPark are gearing up for their first year back in the K League 1 since 2015. Jo Deok-jae’s free-scoring side were a joy to watch in the second division, but can they tighten up enough at the back to hold their own against the biggest teams in the country?

Last Season

18W-13D-5L, 2nd (K League 2 - promoted via playoffs)

What Happened?

Busan IPark recruited Jo Deok-jae to lead the club into the 2019 season, and he picked up right where previous managers Choi Yoon-gyum and Jo Jin-ho had left off. Busan were a young, attack-minded team with a buccaneering mindset and a cavalier attitude towards defending. While eventual champions Gwangju FC were solid and consistent (and brilliantly so), Busan were flawed but never less than entertaining. With Gwangju flying, Busan looked a shoe-in for second place even from the very early weeks of the season, and second was where they eventually finished.

In the playoffs, Busan saw off FC Anyang to set up a tie with Gyeongnam FC, who finished second bottom in the top tier. After a goalless first leg at Busan’s Gudeok Stadium, the season hinged on the second leg in Changwon. In a tight game, talismanic Brazilian midfielder Rômulo shrugged off the pressure of the moment to convert a second half penalty for the Royals, sending the away fans into raptures. Hungarian striker Soma Novothny bid farewell to his temporary club by heading in an injury time second, confirming Busan’s place back among the Korean elite.

Notable Moves


Busan's new signings (left to right): Kim Byung-oh, Lee Ji-min, Dostonbek Tursunov, Kim Jung-hyun, Kim Dong-woo, Gustavo Vintecinco, and Yoon Suk-young

One of Busan’s priorities in this transfer window was to find replacements for influential foreign duo Novothny and Aleksandar Šušnjar, both of whom returned to their native countries after one year on the Korean south coast. Striker Novothny has been replaced by former Ansan Greeners frontman Gustavo Vintecinco, who scored nine goals in the second division last season. Centre back Šušnjar has been replaced by Uzbekistan international Dostonbek Tursunov, who spent last year with Renofa Yamaguchi in Japan’s second tier.

Other new faces include Olympic bronze medalist Yoon Suk-young, who was Korea’s starting left back at the 2014 World Cup and at one time turned out regularly for QPR in the Premier League. Left back was a priority for Busan this winter after the venerable Kim Chi-woo struggled in the second half of last season, so the loan signing of Yoon looks like a real coup. Elsewhere, Kim Dong-woo, a three-time K League champion with FC Seoul, brings some much-needed experience to the centre of defence, while veteran keeper Kim Ho-joon arrives from Gangwon to compete with Choi Pil-soo for a place between the sticks.

Needs

Most of the squad’s perceived weaknesses have already been addressed in a busy transfer window. A previously thin midfield has been padded out with reliable recruits and, vitally, more experience has been added at the back. However, there are still one or two areas that could yet be strengthened.

Last season K League 2 MVP Lee Dong-joon set the division alight with his scintillating speed on the right wing, but Busan still lack a player who can make a similar impact from the left. Han Ji-ho and Kwon Yong-hyun had mixed seasons in 2019, while Diego Maurício left the club despite playing a key role in the closing stages of the year. New signing Kim Byung-oh is a useful player but unlikely to break any records in the top tier, and it remains to be seen whether Busan will use their remaining foreigner spot to bring in a direct replacement for Diego before the season gets underway.

Despite being Korea’s top scorers last season, there are also concerns that the Royals lack a prolific goalscorer. Centre forward Lee Jeong-hyeop is a vital component of the team but he has never been a consistent marksman, and his record at K2 level (30 goals in 74 games) is in stark contrast with his record in the top flight (10 goals in 85 games). New recruit Vintecinco, meanwhile, is of a similar ilk to Novothny and likely to feature more frequently from the bench. With the likes of Lee Dong-joon and Rômulo chipping in, scoring is not likely to be Busan’s biggest problem in the coming season, but a late marquee signing would go a long way to outlining the team’s ambitions of staying in the top flight.

Key Player 

Rômulo


Now entering his fourth year with the club, Brazilian playmaker Rômulo is already something of a Busan cult hero. His penalty in the late stages of the playoff final, unquestionably a season-defining moment for the club, was the crowning jewel in another momentous season for the 24 year-old. Although his influence in 2019 was sometimes limited by canny man-marking jobs, Rômulo still escaped his shackles to deliver a series of magical moments and match-winning performances.

The quality of his left foot is not in question – very few players in Korea have the ability to laser a shot into the top corner from distance like Rômulo. Even when not at the top of his game, he is able to produce something from nothing and turn a game on its head, and that’s why opposition teams will be targeting him as Busan's man to stop.

Young Player to Watch

Lee Dong-joon


While many of his teammates were enjoying a well-deserved rest this winter, Lee Dong-joon was representing Korea in the AFC U23 Championship. The jet-heeled winger enjoyed a successful tournament, scoring twice along the way as Korea won gold and booked their place in this summer’s Olympic Games. Anyone with even a passing interest in the K League 2 last year won’t have been surprised to see Lee being among the tournament’s most eye-catching players.

A speed merchant with exceptional dribbling ability and an ever-improving eye for goal, Lee scored 13 goals from the right wing last year and assisted seven more. He was named the league’s MVP and will be chomping at the bit to be let loose in the top division. If Busan are to exceed expectations on their return to the K1 this year, expect Lee Dong-joon’s name to be in the headlines.

Biggest Question 

Will Busan change their style to survive in the top flight?

Busan are known for their attacking prowess, but their goalscoring exploits last season came at the expense of a very average defensive record. The mid-season acquisition of goalkeeper Choi Pil-soo brought some stability to a nervous back line, but Busan still shipped 47 goals over the year, 16 more than champions Gwangju.

Although individual mistakes accounted for many of these goals, it was Busan’s penchant for attack that frequently left the park wide open and the defence easily exposed. Last year Jo Deok-jae favoured a midfield triangle featuring veteran anchorman Park Jong-woo alongside the more attack-minded Rômulo and Kim Jin-gyu, but his approach may alter this year against the K League’s more dangerous sides.

Jo has recruited defensive midfielder Kim Jung-hyun from Seongnam, while Lee Gyu-seong returns from Sangju having impressed in a holding role last year. Either could play alongside Park in a more conservative lineup, with Rômulo pushed to a more advanced midfield role and Kim Jin-gyu switched to left wing, where he thrived in 2018.

It would be a surprise if Busan entirely abandoned their principles on their return to the top flight, but it would be even more of a surprise if Jo didn’t experiment with formations and personnel in a bid to provide more protection for the back line. In theory the aim this year will be simple – to balance slick attacking instincts with a tightening of the screws. Whether they can pull it off or not will be intriguing.

Reason to Watch 

As Korean football’s top scorers in 2019, Busan garnered a lot of support from neutrals. This year will be even more interesting as their young band of livewires test themselves against some of the best defenders in the country.

Jo Deok-jae has put together a youthful, exciting team featuring some of the K League’s most promising players. Right back Kim Moon-hwan is already a fixture in the national team, while Lee Dong-joon and Kim Jin-gyu look likely to play key roles for their country in Tokyo this summer. With Rômulo given creative license, supported by the level-headed experience of the likes of Park Jong-woo and Lee Jeong-hyeop, Busan may yet turn a few heads on their return to the K1. If recent seasons are anything to go by, goals – at both ends – are all but guaranteed.


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